There is an African proverb that says,” He who speaks truth has very few friends.” And as if to test the veracity of that proverb the film LESSON BEFORE LOVE (2014) tells the emotionally complex tale of ambition, love, sex and lies among a quartet of Black thirty-somethings. Although it has become rather customary to refer to such ambition and relationship films among males and females as “hetero-normative”, I don’t think the critics who are using this term are doing so out of spite, but more so out of boredom. The problem with so many bourgeois hetero-normative relationship films is that they are often too predictable. Watching many of these films as either a romantic comedy or dramedy is like watching someone recite the alphabet and having to pretend that you don’t know that the last letter is Z.
Yet what makes the often told tale of love, sex and ambition in LESSON BEFORE LOVE so refreshingly compelling is both the complexity of its characters and the emotional intricacy of its circumstances delivered to us via a nuanced screenplay and inspired cinematography and editing.
In a (stereo)typical Black relationship film (e.g. Tyler Perry, Tim Story, Malcolm D. Lee, etc) we usually have the presentation of everyone’s circumstances of dissatisfaction, then some major dramatic event which leads to the pursuit of a love object that is blocked by the advice or the lies of other friends or family. In the final act the lead characters get their come-uppance by having their vanities torn down and true love is finally attained. It is a plot summary that can be seen in many of Tyler Perry’s works and various other relationship films like THE BEST MAN, THINK LIKE A MAN and various other lesser known straight-to-DVD Black films.
Yet Brooklyn based independent filmmaker Dui Jarrod has written and directed his feature length film LESSON BEFORE LOVE as if he were inspired by a declaration from French painter Auguste Renoir who said, ”I often paint bouquets from the side I haven’t arranged.”(1) That is to say, the four principal characters - Eric (Kenneth Brown Jr.), Alexis/Leslie (Shamea Morton), Cullen (Peyton Coles), and Janae (Reece Odum) - are placed in a narrative that literally reverses the plot summary of the typical relationship film that was described above. Indeed, the first twenty minutes of the film is an emotional tinderbox with each character getting their come-uppance delivered to them by the truth telling Eric character, who narrates many of the contradictions and ironies in voice-over. Everyone’s illusions and vanities are picked apart with a surgeon’s precision, saving Eric’s own seemingly fruitless pursuit of the coquettish Alexis/Leslie as the final egocentric tear down.
And yet it is not just the reversal of the narrative trajectory of the typical relationship film that makes LESSON BEFORE LOVE shine brighter than what we have seen before and come to expect- instead it is how Jarrod allows his characters to expand and develop like slicing through the layers of an onion to find a kernel made up of ever more layers, textures and surprises. Here we would compare the depth and emotional complexity of the quartet of characters in LESSON BEFORE LOVE to jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk’s observation that, ”Some music just imagined… What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.” (2)
As if applying Monk’s observation about music to his own screenplay and the direction of his quartet of actors, Jarrod allows each performer to hit unexpected and different emotional notes as their characters are expanded and developed uniquely after the opening act tear down. Instead of empty histrionics (recall Janet Jackson’s smashing of a glass table in WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO) characters brood in pained silence or stinging “I’mma tell you about yourself” criticism from others. Instead of meaningless casual sex, characters pause to comprehend each other’s vulnerabilities. The scenes between the couples as they pair off are deliberately intercut together to sustain a devastating denuding of the vanities throughout the narrative. Of particular interest is Jarrod’s fresh twist on the “sassy and oversexed” female predator character of Alexis/Leslie. It is a twist on a character stereotype worthy of Freudian psychoanalysis- but I would not dare spoil it for you here in this review.
While each character and their ambitions are all too familiar to contemporary Black audiences, it is how in a valiant act of artistic defiance Jarrod refuses to give in to easy dramatic contrivances and facile dramatic resolutions that leads the viewer ever deeper into the tightly woven world of the film’s human quartet.
Eric is a musician and producer looking for the right voice to sing his songs.
Cullen has ambitions to start his own Black themed lifestyle magazine.
Janae is the “wifey” of a pro-football player impatiently waiting for him to –as they say- “put a ring on it.”
Alexis/Leslie is the emotionally promiscuous love object of Eric’s affections that serial dates with an aloof demeanor that borders on the sociopathic.
Even by summarizing these characters as I have done above, the jaded Black film spectator might already be thinking of how these characters and their circumstances will turn out- but as I have said what makes LESSON BEFORE LOVE compelling is how Jarrod defies the cliché, the expected, and the formulaic. It is the film of a promising Black auteur because he has made a film that follows his own philosophical convictions and dramatic predilections in direct opposition to the conventional representation of Black characters in so-called popular Black cinema but without totally disregarding the commercial appeal of the final product.
For those prospective viewers who might be tempted to look at this film through a Devil’s Eye, we’ve already discussed in the article The Devil’s Eye Syndrome: Creative Jealousy Against the Black Independent Filmmaker which you can access here, that the primary target of hypocritical negative criticism against Black Independent film is the acting because the actors in independent films are relatively unknown as is the case with LESSON BEFORE LOVE. But the performances by the acting ensemble in this film are skillfully crafted by the emotional notes that aren’t being hit as well as those that are hit. We must keep in our minds open to the possibility that Black masculinity can go beyond what has been made popular by Terry Crews and Shemar Moore; just as Black femininity is more that what Beyonce and Rihanna popularize and embody. LESSON BEFORE LOVE asks you to accept the diverse types of Black masculinity and femininity that exist in between what the studios and television have popularized and made into an acceptable commodity.
Not since New German Cinema filmmaker and “enfant terrible” Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) has a director accomplished so much dramatically with so little economically in a single film. It is an accomplishment that proves that the size of a film’s budget does not determine the size of a film’s ideas nor its overall dramatic integrity. I know that some may find such a comparison to Fassbinder hyperbolic, for Jarrod certainly is not as “freaky” as Fassbinder with regard to the sexuality of his characters, but my comparison is based on two of the many remarkable qualities within the film:
1) The sustained use of humiliation and emotional restraint.
2) The deliberate interaction between cinematography and the communication of the character’s emotional world.
Like Fassbinder, Jarrod displays a penchant for allowing his characters to suffer humiliations without having to rely on the trite homilies we often hear characters say to one another in lesser films about the lives of Black people. And although Fassbinder was known for his use of Brechtian acting techniques in his films which requires his actors to refrain from showing emotions until the absolute breaking point. By contrast, Jarrod equally directs his actors to restrain their emotions as he approaches these familiar circumstances of emotional insecurity, ambitions and sexual dissatisfaction from a different perspective; from the other side of the bouquet as it were, where what has been skillfully arranged on the page is approached from a different angle on the screen.
Not to give the impression that LESSON BEFORE LOVE is a dramatic film devoid of emotion, in fact there are great moments of comedy in the film (awkward moments, witty comebacks and caustic asides) that are all the more humorous because of the emotional restraint the actors display during the serious scenes. A discussion of masturbation between two women plays at the same emotional tone as the frank opening discussion of the ennui of single life that begins the film. Moreover, there are key scenes of humiliation of the ambitious Black male that cannot but strike a nerve in even the most discriminating Black film spectator. For instance, the scene where Cullen attempts to pitch his Black lifestyle magazine to two older White male investors does not go for the obvious, but instead the scene is written and performed in such a way as to allow you to fill in the “blanks” regarding how Whites justify investing or not investing in the business ventures of Black men.
In allowing us, the audience, to fill in the blanks during a racially polarized scene Jarrod demonstrates what Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said,” Respect for an audience… can only be based on the conviction that they are no stupider than you.” (Slave Cinema, 27)
There is a delicate balance in direction, acting and musical ambiance provided by a well thought out score written by Daeus Cannon that allows an alternative view of the emotional lives of Black people to be seen on the screen. It is this alternative view that refreshes as it invigorates our often jaded ideas about the (ir)relevancy of Black Independent Film in the face of successful studio backed “urban” Rom-Coms and sequels like THINK LIKE A MAN TOO and the inevitable BEST MAN sequels.
The second comparison to Fassbinder is found in the close creative collaboration between director and cinematographer that Fassbinder shared with Dietrich Lohmann, Michael Ballhaus, and Xaver Schwarzenberger during his brief but enormously productive career.(3) The creative collaboration between Dui Jarrod and his cinematographer Tyler Dixon bears similar visual fruit as Fassbinder’s collaborations, if simply because the camera is allowed to be expressive within the narrative beyond just as a conduit for the actor’s performance and the dialogue.
In one ingenious visual set piece the camera dollies from left to right and back again past Eric as he plays piano while building a song and yet each time the camera dollies past him he is in different clothing. What this suggests is that this visual set piece is really a montage sequence composed of precise camera movements rather than by individual shots in rapid succession to compress the many, many rehearsals, rewriting, and re-conceptualizing that musicians go through before attaining a completed song. It is this attention to camera movement, editing and image construction that places LESSON BEFORE LOVE far above so many other Black relationship films because the filmmakers are not content to just have the camera slavishly follow their actors in relentless medium two-shots to capture dialogue- but the camera becomes integral to the telling of the story by communicating through image construction rather than just through the dialogue and actions within the image.
It takes a greater artistic effort to think cinematically than it does to just film your actors as they talk.
Yet I don’t want my comparisons to Fassbinder to distract from the originality and the integrity of Jarrod’s achievement in LESSON BEFORE LOVE; I only made the comparisons to highlight the distinctive aspects of this independent Black film that challenges our conventional expectations regarding the representation of the emotional lives of Blacks in the cinema. Unfortunately many Black independent filmmakers often make extremely conventional independent films to gain attention and recognition from the White controlled American Entertainment Complex- only to find out how little the American Entertainment Complex values Black cinema which is thought of as a low profit making niche genre. By contrast, writer/director Dui Jarrod, cinematographer Tyler Dixon and co-producer James Cole have created a powerfully compelling Black film that contests the conventional representation of Blacks which is for all intents and purposes the most important mandate that all Black independent filmmakers should be pursuing and upholding.
The real lesson to be found in LESSON BEFORE LOVE is how to make a film that adheres to your own philosophical, dramatic and cinematic standards without compromising your standards to clichés, stereotypes and facile “feel good” moral homilies for the all mighty dollar.
LESSON BEFORE LOVE is a film we should all be watching for the alternative lessons about love learned by the characters and the lessons about independent cinema that can be learned by the viewers.
LESSON BEFORE LOVE is available on DVD via Breaking Glass Pictures website www.bgpics.com or via amazon.com.
1) Pg. 57, “The Other Side of The Bouquet” by Alain Bergala in the book Jean-Luc Godard Son+Image, The Museum of Modern Art Publishing, New York; 1992.
2) This quote is taken from the handwritten notes called Monk’s Advice written by Thelonious Monk in 1960. http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/02/thelonious-monks-advice.html
3) For those unfamiliar with New German Cinema wunderkind, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a great film to start with is ALI, FEAR EATS THE SOUL (Angst Essen Steel Auf- 1973. Fassbinder made (under the influence of cocaine and other drugs) in between the years of 1969-1982 according to Wallace Steadman Watson,” 36 feature length films, two film television series (of five and fourteen parts respectively), four other short films, two documentaries for television, twenty-four stage plays, and four radio plays.” (Pg. 2, Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as a Private and Public Art, Colombia, University of South Carolina Press, 1996).